A Review of Jasmila Žbanić's Quo Vadis Aida?
A YouTube video titled, with troubling enthusiasm, “General Ratko Mladic Entering Srebrenica 1995!” begins with an almost too on-the-nose image: a UN tank, overturned in a ditch, enormous, screen-filling, useless. A gaggle of soldiers approaches the tank from further down the road, among them Ratko Mladić, the Serbian general convicted in 2017 of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes committed during the Bosnian War of the 1990s. Mladić inspects the tank and orders his men to hook it up to one of their own to try and dislodge it. “Show this,” he turns and shouts at the camera operator, “how we are saving UNPROFOR [the United Nations Protection Force]!” (They don’t succeed.)
This is one of several home video-quality documents, all on YouTube, of Mladić around the time of the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre. The Bosnian director and writer Jasmila Žbanić notes the overabundance of these images and videos in many of the interviews she gave around the premiere of her new movie Quo Vadis, Aida?, about the expulsion and genocide of Bosnian Muslims from Srebrenica, designated a safe area by the UN in 1993, by Mladić and his army. ”I think people are tired of these images from the Balkan War,” Žbanić said at the film’s press conference at last year’s Venice Film Festival. She singled out how documentary shakycam footage of war on TV and the internet, despite its immediacy, can still create psychological distance between the viewer and the subject. Her self-assigned mission as a filmmaker was to find a style that would stay faithful to historical events while drawing her audience closer to the characters, many of whom were invented for the film.
Aida, a Bosnian teacher hired by the UN as an interpreter, is a composite of women whose stories Žbanić learned while interviewing the survivors of Srebrenica during the early research for the movie. Mladić has already been advancing and opening fire on Srebrenica by the time the film begins, so Aida has been summoned to a meeting between the town mayor and UN representatives, including the Dutch colonel Karremans and Major Franken (both were real figures in the war). Aida is a dutiful translator, attending to the job she’s been asked to do without inserting herself into the negotiations, except to defuse the mayor’s temper and keep the conversation on track. Karremans repeatedly promises that a recently issued ultimatum from the UN will deter the Serbs from any further violence, and that at any rate the townspeople will be safe so long as they stay in their homes. Žbanić cuts directly from the negotiation room to a missile striking an apartment complex.
What follows is a depiction, fleet and stressful, of the flight of the tens of thousands of Srebrenican townspeople to the Dutch UN compound where most of the movie is set. Žbanić is careful not to wallow in depravity. For instance, a woman is shown, in passing, lying dead in front of an oven where a cake is left baking, but we’re spared having to see her killed. What’s horrible about the situation is respectfully addressed and moved past.
No doubt this is partly due to the film’s hewing closely to Aida’s point of view. Aida has a position of immense privilege, which she knows she can use to her family’s advantage. When her husband and one of her two sons are locked out at the compound gates, Major Franken permits her to sneak them through as a favor for helping him find volunteers to attend negotiation talks with Mladić. While everyone else in the overcrowded, bathroomless compound tries to sleep, Aida and her family sit up smoking, laughing, and fancying all the ways they’ll celebrate after their ordeal is all over, until a neighbor hushes them into place.
Between scenes at the UN compound, Žbanić inserts sequences of Mladić entering Srebrenica. Many of these shots call to mind the YouTube videos of the same. Though Žbanić opts out of shot-for-shot remakes of the historical footage, neither, she claims, did she want to depict Mladić as a shadowy figure whose monstrousness would be implied by how he is framed. She strikes a balance by filming his appearances with a naturalism consistent with the rest of the movie and using Mladić’s own words, verbatim when possible, instead of inventing too much novel dialogue.
Mladić and Aida never cross paths directly, but her husband, a former school superintendent, joins the Bosnian negotiators at a meeting with Mladić and the UN. “There is no need for your people to die,” Mladić says to the three Bosnian volunteers, as one of them watches a fly land on a dying bouquet of flowers on the table. He makes an offer to provide buses to bring the refugees back to Srebrenica on the condition that the UN provides him fuel in return. Colonel Karremans says there’s none to be had: the compound hasn’t received any supplies since February. Mladić doubles down on his promise to keep the innocent safe, though we sense he’s seizing some bargaining power to decide for himself who among the Bosnians qualifies as such.
At Mladić’s orders and no thanks to Karremans’s and Franken’s spinelessness, armed Serbian soldiers enter the compound in search of Muslim soldiers. Aida can see the end approaching. She tells her sons to hide away from the crowd and runs to talk to the UN employees at the back of the base, where news of the Serbians’ arrival hadn’t yet reached. UN incompetence is on full display: Mladić’s troops drive up in buses and toss bread and Toblerone to the masses while Karremans and company scramble to figure out their own plan for handling the refugee relocation.
Aida meanwhile continues to storm up and down the compound in search of a way to keep her husband and sons off the buses, which she presumes are not bound for safety as promised. She tries to enter their names on a list of people allowed to stay at the compound (as a UN employee, she’s already on it) and is told to print them special IDs; at the print room, she’s told the ID printer has been out of service for months. She offers to shoot her sons in the feet so they can be loaded onto a medical vehicle bound for a hospital, but there’s no room for new patients. In a last-ditch effort, she goes to a cargo vehicle and asks if she can hide her family underneath a crate. “If they find them, at least we tried.”
The total lack of urgency of any of the UN staff—many of whom, in their (period-accurate) bright blue helmets and bicep-baring short sleeve uniforms, we might accurately classify as himbos—relative to Aida’s alarm is jarring. Her suspicion, never vocalized but clear from her face and behavior, that the Serbians plan to take the men of Srenebrenica away to kill them is ultimately proven correct. The tragedy of the story is thus twofold: the UN failed to protect the people in its care, and Aida, our ostensible hero, can’t use any of her privilege to overcome the bureaucratic inertia preventing her from saving even the people closest to her. The film’s final scene—years later, when Aida has returned to teaching, at a school play attended by many of the people present at the UN compound in July 1995—implies that Aida’s hubris may have even prevented her family from boarding an earlier bus bound for safety instead of for a firing squad.
Aida is an effective amalgam, a character through whose eyes the viewer plausibly sees the horrors the Bosnian people suffered and the UN operations that exacerbated them. The question is whether she does justice to “the women of Srebrenica and their 8,372 killed sons, fathers, husbands, brothers, cousins, neighbors. . .” to whom Žbanić dedicates the film. Jasna Djuricic, the Serbian actress who plays Aida, unquestionably rises to the occasion. Her performance is physically intense, not far off from what actors on more literal battlefronts in other war movies are praised for. Through her tight control of her body we see the toll enacted as she restrains her emotions while expertly performing her role as translator for the organization ensuring her safety.
Though Žbanić shot the film digitally with her standard cinematographer Christine Maier, she achieves a look that preserves the lifelike skin tones of shooting on film. No doubt she’s helped by shooting so much of the movie in broad daylight (a choice that really drives home the UN’s transparent complicity), but faces in even the most dimly lit scenes are free from the off-color tints and sheens that so often accompany digital filmmaking. Žbanić’s and Maier’s images are impactful but not ostentatious. In one brief but moving standout, Aida and her husband grab hands and run away from the camera as the sound of Serbian gunfire rattles in the background. As they recede into the distance, they drift apart and Aida stumbles, their linked hands a fragile but tenacious bond.
If there is any shortcoming to Žbanić’s depiction of the war, the dependably trenchant critic Michael Sicinski proposes a valid one. Aida and her family are not recognizably Muslim in any way, and insofar as the movie is about the dehumanization of Bosnian Muslims by both the Serbs and the UN, Sicinski holds that Žbanić doesn’t adequately humanize those victims of war without even Aida’s mild privileges. “When we consider that anti-Muslim sentiment hasn’t abated since 1995,” Sicinski writes, “it behooves Žbanić to find a new way to tell this story, one that can complicate the human tendency to massify the Other.”
He’s right to point out one moment that indicates Žbanić is at least aware of her responsibility. In an early scene, Aida dreams of a memory from before the war, when she participated in an “East Bosnia’s best hairstyle” pageant. The sequence is light, music-filled, and includes a prolonged shot of folk dancing. The camera stays in place at the center of the dance circle and one by one, in slow motion, the people of Srebrenica dance past, stopping with the beat of the music to turn and look directly into the lens. Sicinski argues that Žbanić ought to have done more to demonstrate that the inherent humanity of Bosnian Muslisms on display in this flashback was not somehow lost during or after the war, though I would counter that she does try.
In two breaks from Aida’s immediate point of view, Žbanić focuses on the crowd outside the UN compound. In one tracking shot, she sweeps across the bodies and faces of Bosnians of all ages seated in a field and alights on a woman who, undeterred by the circumstances, is at work washing clothes in a basket. In another shot, Žbanić trains the camera on the feet of a line of men as they are loaded onto one of the Serbian buses. Every shoe and sandal, no matter how cheap or expensive, is equally full of holes. She holds it just long enough to make the point, then cuts to the men’s faces and tracks down the line so we can spend a moment to appreciate each person in what will presumably be their last moments alive.
But the most interesting shot, and the one that most complicates Sicinski’s critique of the movie, is one from the epilogue when Aida goes to search for the remains of her family. In a large, pale room, the bones of men disinterred from mass graves are laid out on white sheets alongside any clothes or objects found with them. Aida wanders the room for several minutes in search of her husband or sons (according to Žbanić, Djuricic was not told where they would be, so we watch her find them virtually in real time). When Aida spots her sons’ clothes, she falls to her knees, softly weeping, and grasps what remains of their hands. Žbanić could have shot this in close up, as she shot Aida through so much of the film, but in the character’s most emotionally expressive moment, Žbanić holds the camera back at a medium distance. This angle allows Aida and her sons’ remains to fit comfortably in the frame all at once, but it also gives a view of all the other women of Srebrenica, many of them in hijabs, pacing beside and behind Aida. For the sake of the narrative, we’re allowed to see Aida receive some closure to her personal tragedy, but at the same time Žbanić uses the scene as a sharp and simple reminder of the real women that Aida’s story was always meant to point us back to.
Featured image: Women at the monument for victims of the July 1995 Srebrenica Massacre in photo (2007) by Adam Jones via Wikimedia Commons.